Citizenship, Nationalism, and Heritage in Gulf States

Since gaining independence and subsequently discovering substantial hydrocarbon wealth, the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have put in place perhaps the most generous welfare programmes in the world. Consequently, they have also formulated strict citizenship legislation to restrict access to these benefits. As a result, segmentation has emerged along lines of nationality, with citizens increasingly a distinct class from large expatriate populations who have been recruited to staff these states as their economies expand post-pandemic.

The demographic compositions of the GCC states, particularly the large proportion of foreign nationals (with Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates housing expatriate majorities), have increasingly become the focus of political discussion and social concern. Citizenship has also become a prized commodity, one which has for years remained out of reach for the over 50 million non-nationals who reside in GCC countries.

While expatriates may not be political assets
or socially desirable in some circles, they continue to be and are likely to remain a significant feature of economic life within the GCC.

We have seen concerns about the effect of expatriate populations on nationals expressed most vocally in Kuwait, where one former MP opined in 2018 that expatriates should “pay even for the air they breathe”[i] and where the government in 2020 stated its aim to reverse the demography from 70 percent expatriate and 30 percent citizen in the coming years through the implementation of labour force nationalisation, or Kuwaitisation.[ii] Such policies have sped up out of necessity, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kuwait now faces a labour shortage in some areas, such as domestic labour and accounting – areas in which labour force nationalisation projects have not been focused.[iii] While expatriates may not be political assets (they do not have voting rights) or socially desirable in some circles, they continue to be and are likely to remain a significant feature of economic life within the GCC, which begs the question of what effect this has on citizenship in general.

Indeed, expatriates are necessary from an economic standpoint, although the population is often not integrated socially or politically, and their presence in the GCC remains, at its core, impermanent. For instance, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many expatriates permanently left the Gulf, with the region’s total population declining 4 percent in 2020, a trend which S&P predicts will last into 2023 due to lower non-oil growth and labour force nationalisation policies.[iv] GCC states therefore face the challenge of preparing their citizenry to take jobs they have not accepted or been trained for in the past, particularly if expatriates no longer take jobs they have historically been relied upon to take.

The UAE, in January 2021, became the first state in the GCC to offer a path to citizenship for non-nationals with specialised skills, including investors, medical doctors, engineers, and artists.

Expatriate populations are and will remain a reality for states with powerful global economies and ambitions yet with relatively small citizen populations; a state like Qatar which has around 300,000 nationals faces a shortage of citizens that requires expatriate staffing. One approach to this challenge is to change citizenship policies, particularly after millions of expatriates left the GCC following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, to stop this expatriate outflow, the UAE, in January 2021, became the first state in the GCC to offer a path to citizenship for non-nationals with specialised skills, including investors, medical doctors, engineers, and artists, who can, in the words of Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid, “contribute to our development journey.”[v] Saudi Arabia followed suit in November 2021, granting citizenship to an unspecified number of expatriates with “outstanding capabilities” and backgrounds in “rare specialties.”[vi] Citizenship is therefore being granted strictly and expressly to expatriates who are considered economic assets to these countries. In the past, GCC citizenship has been granted to athletes, fuelling debates about naturalisation policies and providing a template for the provision of citizenship to expatriates with exceptional talent.

Qatar, as of 2018, became the first GCC state to offer permanent residency to expatriates investing in the country, with a cap of 100 naturalisations per year.

In addition to introducing new citizenship policies, some states are allowing permanent residency for similarly exceptional expatriates. Qatar, as of 2018, became the first GCC state to offer permanent residency to expatriates investing in the country, with a cap of 100 naturalisations per year.[vii] The law prioritises children born to Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers, who are currently not automatically granted citizenship, a common feature of citizenship laws throughout the GCC and even in other Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon – a policy that has stirred considerable debate about citizenship and the right for women to pass their nationalities to their children. The Qatari law also prioritises expatriates who have lived in the country for more than 20 years and have “valuable” skills.[viii] These permanent residents by law are entitled to the same social welfare as citizens in what is, according to Abdullah al-Athbah, meant to be “a gesture of appreciation to many of our Arab brothers who have lived among us for decades and made an honourable stand supporting Qatar against the siege by the neighbouring countries.”[ix] The granting of citizenship or permanent residence, then, became a means for Qatar, particularly during the GCC crisis in 2017-2021, to reward and retain expatriates who have contributed to or are likely to contribute to the state, as well as those who have remained in the state while it was cut off diplomatically and physically form its neighbours.

Bahrain in 2022 became the latest GCC state to offer a permanent residency scheme for those who have lived in Bahrain for at least five years, have a basic average salary of no less than $5,000 per month, own one or more properties in the country, or are qualified as “highly talented.”[x] The commodification of citizenship appears to have led to a competition among GCC states to find new ways, whether through citizenship or permanent visa schemes, to attract and retain expatriate talent. Despite these new policies, however, divisions certainly remain among white collar expatriate workers and migrant workers, as these schemes remain limited to expatriates in the professional sector – particularly those with enough disposable income to own property and invest in the country in other ways. This leaves migrant workers in particular without a path to a more stable or permanent existence in the GCC and could open the gap between different classes of expatriates within these states.

The question of citizenship in the GCC, interestingly, has not solely revolved around the naturalisation of or presence of expatriate majorities. Discussion has also emerged, exposing the extent to which various types or classes of citizens within each state – largely as a consequence of strict citizenship laws put in place to ensure that the fiscal benefits of citizenship were not given freely and unrestrainedly.

There exist different varieties of citizenship even for those who are GCC nationals, often distinguished as “original” versus “naturalised” citizens.

Discussions surrounding citizenship in Qatar during the country’s first Shura Council elections in October revealed that there exist different varieties of citizenship even for those who are GCC nationals, often distinguished as “original” versus “naturalised” citizens. In the case of Qatar, the Nationality Act of 1961 describes as “original Qataris” those who settled in the country before 1930; those who became citizens after this time are considered naturalised and were excluded from October’s first Shura Council elections.[xi] Because this condition is inherited and cannot be changed, entire families and tribes, most notably the al-Murrah, were prohibited from voting – a policy which led to their vocal outcry about the policy. Amir Shaykh Tamim in October pledged to change the citizenship legislation, as a means of ensuring that tribal solidarities do not reemerge and displace loyalty to the state; he also explained that citizenship “is not just a legal issue, but a civilisational issue before that and a loyalty and belonging, and a matter of duties and not just rights.”[xii]

This distinction and the discussion that followed its consequences in Qatar highlighted the centrality of tribes to the very conception of political participation and social belonging in the Gulf, proving that there are political and ideological issues linked to tribes as both political and social units in rentier states. The formulation of strong national identity projects across the GCC, then, have not only been aimed at differentiating citizens from expatriates but also tribe from nation, in a bit to change loyalties from being primarily directed to kin groups, on which citizenship rights are based, to the state itself.

The GCC states have spent considerable money investing in new museum and heritage projects as a means of promoting nationalism among citizens. Heritage projects highlight a shared pre-oil past among all citizens, whether “original” or “naturalised,” thereby excluding expatriates who only arrived after this period. Symbols like the desert rose in Qatar and the falcon in the UAE highlight the origins of these states and underline the importance of belonging in the natural environment as well as in the legal one.

As economic realities force GCC states to continue to court expatriate workers and as political competition among citizens leads to the reformulation of citizenship legislation, categories of citizenship and belonging appear to be changing, at least legally. When it comes to social changes, however, it is less clear what long-term impact these recent shifts will have. As the GCC states enhance their specific national brands, nationalism is likely to replace tribal or kinship belonging as primary, but it remains to be seen what place expatriates will have in this new order.

[i] “Kuwait MP calls for foreign workers to be charged ‘for the air they breathe,” Gulf Business, 29 October 2018, https://gulfbusiness.com/kuwait-mp-calls-foreign-workers-charged-air-breathe/.
[ii] “Kuwait vows to cut migrant population to 30%,” Arab News, 4 June 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1684841/middle-east.
[iii] Tawfiq Nasrallah, “Kuwait experiences shortage of accountants,” Gulf News, 22 January 2022, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/kuwait/kuwait-experiencing-shortage-of-accountants-1.85136413; “Kuwait suffers from severe shortage of domestic workers,” Kuwait Times, 15 December 2021, https://www.timeskuwait.com/news/kuwait-suffers-from-severe-shortage-of-domestic-workers/.
[iv] “Gulf expat exodus could continue until 2023, S&P says,” Reuters, 15 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-expats-s-p/gulf-expat-exodus-could-continue-until-2023-sp-says-idUSKBN2AF0LC.
[v] Tamara Abueish, “UAE to grant citizenship to investors, professionals in bid to attract talent,” Al Arabiya, 31 January 2021, https://english.alarabiya.net/News/gulf/2021/01/30/UAE-to-grant-citizenship-to-investors-professionals-in-bid-to-attract-talent.
[vi] “Saudi Arabia gives citizenship to ‘outstanding’ expats in shift,” Arabian Business, 13 November 2021, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/industries/industries-culture-society/saudi-arabia-gives-citizenship-to-outstanding-expats-in-shift.
[vii] Ali Younes, “Qatar first Gulf nation to grant permanent residency to expats,” Al Jazeera, 5 September 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2018/9/5/qatar-first-gulf-nation-to-grant-permanent-residency-to-expats.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] “Bahrain Launches Golden Residency Visa,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 February 2022, https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/3463011/bahrain-launches-golden-residency-visa .
[xi] Kristin Smith Diwan, “Electoral Law Sparks Debate over Qatari Citizenship and Political Rights,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 23 August 2021, https://agsiw.org/electoral-law-sparks-debate-over-qatari-citizenship-and-political-rights/.
[xii] Asmahan Qarjouli, “Amir Tamim orders ‘legal amendments’ to promote equality among Qataris at first Shura Council session,” Doha News, 26 October 2021, https://www.dohanews.co/amir-tamim-orders-legal-amendments-to-promote-equality-among-qataris-at-first-shura-council-session/.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.